A new genre of films from South India – epic, big-budget, over-the-top action films, some served with dashes of toxic masculinity and gory violence – are increasingly dominating the country’s $24 billion media and entertainment market, in some cases leaving behind them left their mark beyond India. Although filmed in regional languages such as Telugu and Kannada, they draw millions of viewers to cinemas showing dubbed versions and subtitled streaming platforms.
At the forefront of the movement is “RRR,” a story of two Indian freedom fighters fighting British colonialists in the 1920s. According to website The Numbers, it has grossed up to $150 million worldwide since its release in March, while Rolling Stone magazine and several other US publications have given the film rave reviews. The action franchises “KGF” and “Pushpa” grossed about $200 million in total, local media reported, after the wild success of a two-part mythical fantasy film “Baahubali” in 2015 and 2017, which together grossed about $290 million brought in US dollars, followed.
The numbers mark a high point for India’s film industry, which has long struggled to rival the size of China or the US despite a population of nearly 1.4 billion. Consulting firm Ormax Media estimates that the Telugu-language film industry — known as Tollywood — earned about $212 million last year, dwarfing the $197 million of Bollywood, which has long been based in India’s business hub of Mumbai .
The success, which indicates a power shift south of the country, comes at a time when Bollywood is being rocked by a string of flops as its increasingly westernized content limits its appeal to a mostly urban audience.
Filmmakers in southern India “have found content that transcends regardless of language,” said Karan Bedi, chief executive officer of Indian streaming platform MX Player. “If you look at the few movies that have gone ballistic, it’s this whole superhero formula.”
And the hit series is also good news for streaming giants like Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and Walt Disney Co., which are courting these filmmakers for local content to boost users in the huge but price-sensitive market. According to a March report by EY and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, India’s media and entertainment industry is projected to grow 17% to $24 billion this year and then to $30 billion by 2024.
India’s more affluent south is home to a passionate cinema audience and thousands of cinema screens. The region is also known for producing hundreds of films each year that are considered cheesy even by Bollywood standards and often feature larger than life heroes and heroines. Some of these stars have become successful political leaders.
SS Rajamouli, 49, the maverick who is redefining Indian entertainment with the new genre, shot “RRR” on a $72 million budget, something unprecedented in India. Many of these images are grandiose without lacking in theatricality. They are also enhanced by special effects. In a signature fight scene in “RRR,” the hero grabs a heavy motorcycle and uses it as a bat to beat up the bad guys.
In a review of RRR, Rolling Stone wrote: “If ever a film deserves to be seen in front of an audience and on the biggest screen imaginable, this is it,” but warned that it runs the risk of ” being a long context -less adrenaline rush.”
In a recent interview, Rajamouli said he pushes the finances of his projects and often goes over budget. Before meeting, he watched a YouTube reel of “Top 5 Most Awesome Cinema Game Trailers” — a nod to the bombastic style that got him to the top.
“Obviously the film has to be a success,” said the director from his office in the southern city of Hyderabad, home of Tollywood. “Otherwise everyone will have big problems”
Little known outside India, Rajamouli has shot only in Telugu, the country’s fourth most spoken language, throughout his two-decade directing career. He also made the “Baahubali” franchise, for which he spent 600 days shooting on a gigantic, custom-built set at the world’s largest studio complex, Ramoji Film City – a sprawling 2,000-acre compound and theme park on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
His vision has always been “bigger, bigger and better,” Rajamouli said, reeling off Hollywood inspirations ranging from Brave Heart, Spiderman, and Superman to the 1957 Telugu fantasy epic Mayabazar .
Subtitled streaming has changed the game for some of the region’s films, said Anupama Chopra, film critic and director of the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
“It has also enabled the stars, particularly Telugu cinema, to find audiences outside of their respective regions,” she said. “Now suddenly everyone woke up.”
This success was also aided by a two-decade trend in which Bollywood’s Hindi productions became, according to Chopra, “extremely westernized” and focused more on educated, urbanized Indian audiences at the expense of 70% of the out-of-town population.
“Meanwhile, Telugu cinema has never stopped reaching out to a larger audience,” she said, characterizing the films as “extremely male-centric,” where mythical heroes fight in slow-motion sequences and female characters “are kind of marginalized.”
Chopra is also among the critics who are urging manufacturers to tone down the testosterone somewhat. Many warn that these hits, with their hypermasculine protagonists, can fuel occasional sexism and gender-based violence in India — a country already notoriously unsafe for women.
The Telugu language “Pushpa”, the Kannada language “KGF” series and to a lesser extent “RRR” – are riddled with toxic masculinity and misogyny. Violence is glorified. Attempts by male characters to woo women on screen could often be construed as stalking or kidnapping in most other cultures.
Rajamouli has dismissed criticism of the male-centric content, saying his focus is on storytelling and emotion rather than gender.
Despite the high volume of films produced each year, Indian films have yet to achieve the kind of global crossover appeal that South Korean content has, with award-winning titles like Netflix’s Parasite or Squid Game.
In India, “It hasn’t happened yet,” Rajamouli said, adding that he has no plans to change his style to appeal to a broader global audience. “But the doors are open. It’s definitely gotten a lot easier to find your kind of audience in the rest of the world,” he said.
Cash balances in India are also smaller than in China or the USA. Total ticket sales reached just $470 million last year, down by a third due to the pandemic, versus China’s 47 billion yuan ($7 billion) and Hollywood’s $4.5 billion.
However, according to Chopra, who sees the most likely candidates for smaller and digitally streamed productions, big domestic hits in India are unlikely to gain traction with foreign audiences.
“The traditional Indian mainstream film — that’s song and dance, fantasy, color, drama, violence — I think that’s hard to sell as a crossover,” she said. “It’s a very, very unique flavor. I don’t know if western audiences really believe that, they always see it as kitsch.”